With the surging Kenneth Faried and veteran Nene both missing two of the last three games managing injuries, one can’t help but wonder when it is that the Rockets intend to recall rookie center Isaiah Hartenstein from the G-League. After all, the shorthanded Rockets gave up 32 points in the paint in just the first half of last night’s win against the Miami Heat.
Currently, Hartenstein is enduring his seventh stint in the G-league this season, setting it on fire with nightly averages of 19.5 points, 15.3 boards, 4.0 assists, and 2.1 blocks— more than double what he averaged in each category last season. At the rate he’s improving, it’s within the realm of possibility Hartenstein could be a consistent contributor as early as next season— if not now.
There are stretches where the rookie is so dominant in the G-League that it’s necessary to wonder whether the reps he is getting against the inferior competition is overkill at this point. He truly is a man amongst boys at times.
☝️☝️☝️@HoustonRockets assignee Isaiah Hartenstein (@Ipjh55) with the MONSTER rejection at the rim for the @RGVVipers! pic.twitter.com/HUX1uVgXTt— NBA G League (@nbagleague) February 23, 2019
Obviously, conventional wisdom says that Hartenstein is a rookie behind capable veterans and he will get his chance eventually. But why is it that on nights where the Rockets have a depleted frontcourt that Hartenstein isn’t recalled to eat some of the available minutes, and more importantly, get the high-quality reps he needs to transition to the NBA?
Sure, the Rockets are desperately trying to win games and can’t afford to downgrade their on-court talent to prioritize development, but that’s the thing: it’s questionable at this point whether Hartenstein is a significant downgrade.
Defensively, Hartenstein ranks well ahead of Faried in both isolation and pick-and-roll defense efficiency (per Synergy Sports)— the two staples of Rockets’ big men. And while he doesn’t bring the veteran’s presence and consistency that Nene does, there were stretches early in the season where Hartenstein looked like the best defensive big on the roster. In fact, he still leads the team in block rate and defensive box plus-minus (albeit, a small sample size).
And offensively, while he is far from Nene or Faried when it comes to his effectiveness rolling down the lane, the rookie brings a different dynamic to the pick-and-roll with his excellent passing ability. Currently, Hartenstein has a near 20 percent assist rate in the G-League— an impressive figure for a center, regardless of the competition. If teams were to trap James Harden in the pick-and-roll (as they often do), there mightn’t be a big on the roster better equipped to act as a steady release valve in the short roll.
If Hartenstein is recalled, there would certainly be areas where his inexperience would shine through, but on the whole, it’s clear he’d at least hold his own at this point.
Besides, if the Rockets are beset by frontcourt injuries at some point during the playoffs and need to scavenge the margins of their roster for contributions, they’re going to regret not giving Hartenstein reps in depleted junctures such as the one the team is currently facing.
At this point, at least one thing is clear: this isn’t your typical G-League assignee.